Category Archives: Niagara Helicopters

New additions

In my collection I’ve discovered some photos of the old barn west of Orleans. I’ve put them up here. Right click and choose View Image to see them full-size.

As well, near the bottom of the page, I added a picture of the Niagara Helicopters staff house in Moosonee, where occasionally, we would entertain all of the friendly nurses we could round up on Moose Factory Island.

Experience makes for a great teacher

When you start out flying, you have no experience and a whole lot of luck, and you hope to end up with a whole lot of experience before you run out of luck.

Niagara Helicopters had a number of flight instructors on the payroll. Most were inexperienced in the rigors of bush flying. They were kept on by the school to build flight time up to some arbitrary magic number imposed by the industry and the companies that they wanted to work for. What those low-time instructors were good at was instilling the basics, for basics are everything.

Let me say that again: basics are everything. Without basics, there is no foundation; thus, you have confusion. Confusion is bad. Situational awareness is good. Attitude, altitude, direction, heading, airspeed and common sense rule. And don’t forget to pay attention to all of it. Look outside. Look inside and scan the instrument panel once in a while too. Always fly the aircraft; don’t let it fly you. Stay ahead of it; don’t get behind it. And while you’re up there, where are you going to go when if the engine quits?

Beyond basics comes a knowledge required to survive in the harsh environment of the bush pilot. If an instructor doesn’t have any experience with bush flying, it’s difficult to pass on the tricks of the trade to his students when he doesn’t have any tricks.

Ben debriefing one of his students. His knowledge and his low-key ability to pass it on to others without all the bullshit worked for me.

Fortunately, at just the right time in my training regimen, the flight school hired Ben Arnold. He was an old-time helicopter aviator who had been a part of the beginning of the piston helicopter era in Canada. He was British, although by then he had spent many years in Canada.

Over time I developed a rapport with Ben. Usually we’d end up in the bar at the King Eddy Hotel, listening to the Jack Drake Duo[1] and watching the dancers. On the nights when the duo wasn’t playing, Ben would play the piano for beer money. On a good night we could shut the place down and have a few dollars left over.

Occasionally we’d pile into his blue Volkswagen and head across the line to Ye Olde Tavern and consume a few pints. Ben still had a bit of an accent, so he’d get me to coach him in the proper pronunciation of a few responses to the questions that the border guards might ask when we headed back across the bridge. I wondered about his immigration status, but I never asked. We always sailed across the border and into Canada, home-free. I never failed him.

Nor did he ever fail me. In six thousand hours of flight time, his instruction, principles and guidance held up. He taught me much that I needed to know to survive as a beginner in the harsh environment of the bush pilot. Over the years I acquired first-hand experience in bush, mountain, arctic and desert flight environments. Ben’s instruction was the foundation for most of what this beginner learned through on-site experience.

When you start out flying, you have no experience and a whole lot of luck, and you hope to end up with a whole lot of experience before you run out of luck.

Thanks to Ben Arnold, I made my own luck.

And yes, I was lucky too.

[1] Those two were a couple of pretty cool guys for the times. One thing I’ve always wondered: Did they name themselves after Gotham City’s own Jack Drake? Back to top

Flight school

The venerable old King Edward Hotel in Niagara Falls. It has subsequently been destroyed.

The venerable old King Edward Hotel in Niagara Falls. It has subsequently been destroyed.

In April of 1968 I trundled off to Niagara Helicopters Ltd., and bunked down at the King Edward Hotel — meals included — in downtown Niagara Falls. It was all part of the flight school’s enrollment.

The “King Eddy” was a grand old hotel in the downtown section of Niagara Falls where the company put us up as part of the freight. During my stay there I spent many memorable hours in the company of the Jack Drake Duo – piano and drums, if I remember right – and the strippers who performed on weekends. In other words, I spent a lot of time in the bar.

The King Eddy’s dining room cook was pretty good. In the three months I was enrolled in Niagara’s 100-hour course, I gained about 12 pounds – not bad for a skinny 20-year-old. The cook had a good-looking daughter who waited tables in the dining room, but damned if she’d let any of us flyboys hook up with her. She watched over that girl with an eagle eye like I had never seen.

I can’t imagine why.

Three short months, $8000

Two earstwhile students whiling away the hours in the King Eddy.

Two earstwhile students whiling away the hours in the King Eddy - Bruce Dennison, right, and Don, upper left.

One hundred hours of helicopter flight time was worth eight thousand dollars, not a paltry sum of money back then. I had worked for a number of years, and my family helped out too, so the price wasn’t all that bad. Still, it was expensive, and it had to be paid out over three short months, which was the length of the course.

One of the characters at the school was Bob (for the life of me I can’t remember his last name now). He had something to do with management, although we could never figure out what his background was. I suspect that his main claim to fame was as a drinking partner to the owner of the place. Cigar-smoking Bob was always on the lookout for “dollies”, and he had a never-ending repertoire of stories about his dollies with which he was only too happy to regale us.

Lounge lizards and flight instructors

Martin Sokoloski and Ian Wright

Marty and Ian make plans for some of us to "shuffle off to Buffalo" for some well-deserved R&R. On one trip, we almost ended up in jail, but that's a story for another time.

Not to be outdone in that department, the best flight instructor I ever had – Ben Arnold – would sometimes play the piano in the lounge, and Ben and I would end up drinking for free with his tips. Buster, the night manager, would just shake his head at the two of us.

I wrestled with a Bell 47D, CF-JBQ and its “irreversible” flight controls, and when I took my DOT ride, I had more flight time than the check pilot who gave me the flight test. Today, that would be an impossibility, given the number of highly qualified helicopter pilots who work for Transport Canada. I was happy to have gotten my commercial license – YZC-9789.

Once graduation had come and gone, most of us ended up flying tourists over the falls. The luckier ones ended up at the company’s base in Moosonee on James Bay. Fortunately, I was one of the lucky ones.